Scientists have found genetic changes in colon cancer cells says a New York Times article. If you have a relative with colon cancer, this story captures your attention. But if you are a breast cancer patient, you might yawn and move past the headlines to something more applicable to you.
Don’t be too quick to turn the page. The scientists mapping colon cancer genes as part of the $100-million-a-year Cancer Genome Atlas project are finding genetic similarities among colon, breast, and melanoma cancers. Financed by the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute, the project is looking at the genetic mutations that make cancer cells grow out of control. Results are now available for colon cancer, but the project is also studying lung and breast cancers, as well as acute myeloid leukemia. Once researchers understand the mutations, they can design drugs to stop the growth of the cells.
Breast cancer patients are familiar with some of the terms related to the genetic structure of breast cancer cells. When we get our pathology report, we learn the hormone receptor and Her2neu status of our own tumor, but other features of the tumor may also be important. I admit that when I start reading research about all these unfamiliar genes, my eyes start to glaze over, so I am trying to find ways of understanding this new terminology that make sense to me.
The pathology report gives about as much information about our tumor as a driver’s license—height, weight, hair and eye color. But two people with identical driver’s license information do not really look alike, unless they are identical twins. The Cancer Genome Atlas project is trying to find all the identifying features of a cancer cell. They want to know the equivalent of which cells have a square jaw and which have a pointy jaw. Then they want to know if square-jawed cells behave differently than pointy-jawed cells. (I apologize to my scientist friends for this rather clumsy analogy. Remember, I was an English major.)
What this project has found is that it may not matter where the cancer starts when it comes to treatment. We are used to dividing cancer patients by body parts, but it is time to start looking at a bigger picture. The colon study found that about 5 percent of the colon cancer tumors had the same mutation that Her2neu positive breast cancer patients have. For these colon cancer patients, the drug Herceptin might be lifesaving. They also found an overlap in genetic structure in some colon cancer tumors and melanoma tumors.
In some ways, it will be years before this research is helpful in your doctor’s office. Once scientists understand how the genes help cancer grow, they have to design medicines that will target those genes. Then those drugs will have to go through the clinical trial process.
However, it seems to me that one immediate implication of this study is that we need to be looking at the big picture when it comes to cancer. Because I give to breast cancer charities, folks concerned about kidney and blood cancers send me requests for donations. I toss those envelopes straight into the recycling bin. Maybe I need to rethink how I allocate my charity dollars.